He and four other convicts had just gotten done escaping from an Enforcer substation located on the outskirts of the city, where they'd been awaiting transport and fled into the depths of Megakat Swamp. Thunk! The rock came down, destroying the last of the chains linking him and his four cohorts together. Satisfied, he tossed the rock aside with a splash.
"Boys, we're a chain gang no longer," he said. "Now we're just a plain old gang. And I'm the leader. Any objections?"
There were none. His nickname during his frequent prison sentences was "Murderin' Murdoch." Nobody knew if he ever actually had killed anyone, but he looked tough enough that nobody really ever questioned him.
"Good, now come on!"
The five of them turned and trudged through the swamp. Although Murdoch was confident they were home free, his fellow prisoners were of the nervous, jumpy sort.
"Hey, Murd, how come we're in Megakat Swamp again?" asked one of the other cons.
"'Cause, genius, the Enforcers will never think to look for us in this place!" Murdoch replied.
As they went on, the water they were wading through gradually got deeper and slimier. Something slithered down from a tree. It was a large snake with three glowing eyes. It opened its mouth and hissed at the convicts. Startled, one of them grabbed the three-eyed reptile by the neck and flung it away. Landing in the water with a splash, it swam off.
"This place ain't natural!" he said.
"Yeah, well, it's our ticket outta spendin' the rest of our nine lives in jail," Murdoch snapped. "So shut up and keep movin'!"
The further they proceeded the less leaves there were on the trees, and the larger, more deformed, gnarled and twisted they became. The escaped prisoners had found their way into the heart of the swamp, known to those who lived on its edges as "the Dead Forest." It was a polluted, sludgy, nearly lifeless area with huge trees rising up out of the fetid water like skyscrapers. They looked unhealthy, sick, dead yet somehow still living.
From the largest tree of all, one of the convicts saw what appeared to be a light shining through a kind of window. "Look! I see a light ahead!"
Murdoch squinted in the darkness. He saw it, too. "Someone's crazy enought to live here...?"
"What if it's, y'know... him?" asked another con, terrified.
The one who'd first spotted the light seemed scared, too. "Y-Yeah, Murd? What if it's D-D-Dr. Viper...?"
Murdoch became angry. "It ain't Dr. Viper! Everyone knows that freak lives in the sewers. Now come on."
He trudged on. As they passed by some of the smaller trees, each con broke off a large, thick branch to use as a cudgel. They finally arrived at the base of the tree, which Murdoch estimated to be at least twelve stories tall. Alongside it was a crude dock of sorts, onto which the five cons climbed.
"I don't see any entrance..." said the third convict.
Neither did Murdoch at first. Turning, he noticed a ladder hanging down and looked up. It went up to a large knot in the side of the tree serving as a natural balcony of sorts. He smirked.
"I think we found our mysterious swamp hermit host's front door, boys," Murdoch said.
"Now what?" asked the third con.
"Up, dummy," replied Murdoch, gesturing to the ladder with his cudgel.
He went up first. Lead by example, he liked to say. He was followed by three of the other four convicts, but the second convict, the one who'd been so creeped out by the three-eyed snake, lingered on the dock.
"Are you guys sure this is such a good idea?" he asked.
"If you're such a scaredy-kat, stay down three!" Murdoch called down.
He and the other three continued climbing.
The second con, sighing, scratched his head, growing more worried by the minute. "Be careful!" he called after them. "W-Watch out for possums and stuff!"
The knot had a knothole. A deep one. It served as a kind of tunnel into the rotted, hollowed-out interior of the tree, which was honeycombed with different rooms and chambers, most of which, it turned out, were empty. Brandishing their tree branch cudgels, Murdoch and his three companions proceeded deeper into the interior, following the source of the faint light they'd seen coming through the window.
As they passed the walls, enormous, thickly-veined eyes opened, turning to watch them go. But each time a one of them sensed they were being watched and turned, the eyes closed in time... only to reopen and continue staring at them as they headed off.
The group entered the main hollow of the tree, which seemed to serve as a living area. There was a ratty couch, two armchairs, and a crooked, ramshackle coffee table. Aside from this, the room was entirely given over to lab equipment of all things, with a huge worktable covered with flasks, beakers and retorts. Murdoch was baffled. His companions were becoming angry, impatient and scared.
"What is this place?" asked the third con.
"I dunno," Murdoch admitted, "but we'll steal whatever we can, then leave."
He heard the sound of movement. The four kats turned to see a figure lying on a cot across the room, its back to them. A blanket was pulled up over it. Murdoch smirked, his confidence returning. The owner, he thought.
"Must be the owner," he told his cohorts. "I'll go wake 'im up and ask if he's got anything worth takin'."
Another con grabbed his sleeve. Murdoch looked down at the hand grabbing him, then up at its owners face, which was deeply entrenched on the right cheek by a knife scar. He was annoyed at this challenge to his authority.
"Forget it!" whispered the scarred convict with hoarse fear. "I don't like this! Why bother? This guy ain't got nothin' we need! Let's just get outta here!"
"Relax," said Murdoch, jerking his arm free. He smacked his cudgel into the open palm of his hand. "This old swamp hermit ain't gonna give us any trouble."
Nearby, the other two convicts were examining the chemistry apparatus on the table, watching as the chemicals heated and bubbling over bunsen burners and flowed through spiralling glass tubes. It was beginning to dawn on them just where they were. Murdoch was wrong. Dr. Viper didn't live in the sewers...
"M-Murd," said the second con, "hey, listen..."
But Murdoch was already at the cot. He gave the sleeping figure a poke with his cudgel. It shifted a little. There was a buzzing noise.
"Wake up, you old weirdo!" he growled.
Upon getting no response, he reached down to grab him even as the con with the scar, wary, rushed forward in an effort to stop him, but it was too late; Murdoch grabbed the sleeping figure's shoulder and shook him. He started to demand to know whether he had any valuables or tools, when suddenly the kat in the cot rolled over to reveal a hideous sight. Murdoch gasped aloud and backed up as the figure rose from the cot.
He had brown fur and bulging compound green eyes like a fly. Two twitching antennae sprouted from his forehead. There were deep scars radiating out from the center of his face. He was clad in only the ragged remains of clothing, including a filthy lab coat with the sleeves ripped off, a threadbare dress shirt open to the waist and loose pants that looked far too large on his sticklick legs. Huge membranous wings buzzed and flapped behind him.
The creature that had once been MASA's Dr. Harley Street was most displeased at having his rest so rudely disturbed. So stunned was Murdoch by the half kat, half Ci-Kat-A's appearance that he just stood there as Street grabbed his arm and bit into it using his thick mandibles. Yelping, Murdoch dropped his makeshift cudgel and collapsed to the floor, writing in pain as a fire shot through him and burned its way into his mind. He squeezed his eyes shut.
The scarred convict lunged forward, swinging his tree branch like a baseball bat, but Street grabbed it, yanking it from the startled con's grasp. He snapped it in half, then grabbed its owner and bit him. Crying out as he, too experienced the agonizing pain, he fell down to writh painfully alongside Murdoch. Slowly, their twitching and thrashing stopped as they understood. They'd been chosen to serve a higher power. Opening their eyes to reveal they had become green and insectoid like Street's, they rose slowly from the floor almost robotically.
From across the room, the remaining cons dropped their branches and turned to run. Just then, a green, striped kat with spiky black hair and a loosefitting lab coat entered, carrying a kerosene lantern. A thick, snakelike tail lashed angrily behind him.
"What'sss all this ruckusss?" demanded an annoyed Dr. Viper.
At the sight of the intruders, he became enraged. His tail whipped around, hitting one of them. He was sent flying into the wall. Hitting it, he slid down into a dazed heap. The remaining convict whimpered in fear as the tail now slowly encircled him and squeezed him, lifting him up off of his feet.
"Intrudersss, eh...?" mused Viper, calmer now that he'd dispensed punishment and had the remaining would-be thief in his coils. "I know jussst what to do with the likes of you!"
Dr. Street walked over to the unconscious convict over by the wall, bending over him. He bit his shoulder. What was going on? wondered the con in Viper's grip. This was like some horrible nightmare. "Wh-What's happening?!"
"Nothing that need concern you," Dr. Viper said, hissing soothingly, like a lover. "In a moment, I assure you you won't care one little bit."
Using his tail, he held the squirming convict out towards Street. Rising from his task, Street turned menacingly towards the last remaining normal kat, as his bitten victim rose, bug-eyed, stiff, like a zombie behind him.
"You're going to be jussst like your friendesss!" Viper hissed. "Isssn't that nice?" Turning to Dr. Street, he said, "Doctor, if you pleassse?"
"With pleasure, Doctor," replied the bug-eyed former MASA scientist, with a slight "buzz" to his voice.
He advanced towards the held-out convict who loosed a terrified scream.
Still waiting outside for his friends, the convict on the dock heard the scream and jumped. He turned to look up the ladder he'd last seen his companions ascend.
"Guys?" he called. "You okay up there?"
He heard a bubbling sound behind him and turned. There was a stirring amidst the murky swamp water. An enormous mushroom cap topped with feline ears broke the scummy surface and started towards the dock like a shark fin. There was a sudden eruption of water and a hideous roar, and the convict, holding his useless branch "weapon," had a brief impression of glowing red eyes and an enormous mouth rushing towards him, before everything went black. He felt himself slurped up and his scream was abruptly cut off. There was a rumble around him as a thick, wet belch issued forth from Dr. Viper's mushroom monster.